Whole against the sky

Italy
Chapel inside Castello Aragonese, Ischia; May 2018.

Sometimes I falter when people ask me what I do. You’re a content strategist? What does that mean? I wrote a long answer, explaining what I think about all day: 7 Steps to Content Strategy That Serves Human Beings

. . .

The latest letter from Leah Finnegan is speaking deeply to me right now. I can’t explain it half as well as she can, so just read the letter. She captures precisely how I feel about the unfortunate state of our public (but increasingly, private) discourse—especially on such unrelenting cesspools as Twitter and Facebook.

You know how I feel about Facebook, but I’ve also recently stopped looking at Twitter, and I’m immensely happier online. I also unfollowed about half of the people I was following, especially anyone who tweeted about politics or the news, and now it’s mostly crazy dog ladies (my goofy acquaintances from my dog-blogging days), no context Terrace House, Lulu, and Wei. I’ll still tweet every now and then, if I write something new, but I have deleted the app from my phone and the links from my browsers. I have not missed it at all.

I’ve also stopped reading almost all news, except for longform, investigative journalism. In 2018, I’m only interested in the slow news, in the stories that it took one intrepid reporter (and her invisible editors, no doubt) eight months to tell.

Consequences of the further narrowing of my internet life? An increased sense of daily happiness and calm. An increased desire to read books. An increased gratitude for the physical world. An increased desire to walk to work. An increased attention to my long-suffering houseplants.

. . .

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: 1910-1926

Mad decent

August
My office on a sunny day

The past year has caused me to stop following the news with such voracious interest. I learn about things piecemeal; I look further into them if I am interested. But I no longer try to read everything that is happening. I am over hot takes; I am over the outrage machine. I have books to read and dogs to walk and friends to eat with. And, in spite of it all, the earth melting and the bombs falling, I am happier than I was a year ago.

The weather has been in that unspeakably gorgeous middle ground lately: the humidity is fading away and the air feels light, burnished, sweet.

Ah, how much easier my life would be without these two German shepherds, and also how much sadder.

“To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself.” — James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life

Currently reading: The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (which inspired me to start trying to read short stories in Japanese again; it is taking me an embarrassingly long time and yet I feel uplifted and exhausted by it); Sanctuary, William Faulkner; A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin.

In three ways

At work
New work space.

“Nobody was taking any notice of me yet there was a lovely comforting sensation that beneficent things were being done for me somewhere. I think, as human experiences go, that is one of my favourite ones.” — Claire-Louise Bennett, Pond

Lies I tell at parties

“I’m not much of a hypochondriac.”

“We don’t really watch that much TV.”

“Isn’t that cake delicious? It’s so good, wow.”

How a conversation can collapse (a humorous exhibit)

Man 1: My son married his sister [pointing to other man off stage]. Isn’t that funny? We’ve become like a clan. You [looking at me] should probably get in on this and marry one of them too.

Me: Oh, it’s too late for me.

Man 2: Don’t say that. I had a friend once who got married at 60…

Woman 1: I don’t think that’s what she means. I think she means she’s already married.

Me: Yes. I am married.

Man 2: Oh, I’m sorry. I…

Man 1: Let’s continue our tour.

A piece of a wasted hour

October with Wei
Virginia is perfect this time of year. (A vineyard nearby.)

“Still, a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Vincent van Gogh, in a letter

Annals of Everyday Sexism, No. 1,204

I told him some about my new job and what I would be doing and how I was so excited about it, about the work itself and about all of the new challenges and opportunities it would bring.

“It sounds like Guion and I would be better at that job than you would be,” he said as soon as I finished.

I blinked. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said, and then with uncharacteristic firmness, “I am going to be great at this job.” My blood was feeling hot in my face.

He furrowed his brows, implying he didn’t believe me. But for once, I had a retort ready.

“Just because I’m not constantly talking about myself and how great I am all the time doesn’t mean I don’t have any skills,” I said, turning away.

“Oh, you’re adorable,” he said, in the purest of patronizing tones. And all this despite the fact that he is several years younger than me.

(You are not surprised when it happens, this kind of thing, because it has been happening all your life, but you are now almost 30 and ready to say something about it when it does. To name a thing, to call it what it is, to not hedge anymore.)

That said, I just finished the first week at my new job, and I am feeling all of the good feels: happy, grateful, fortunate, enlightened, challenged, hopeful, thrilled, capable, eager.

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” — Annie Dillard

I just finished The Abundance, which I thought was a new collection of Annie Dillard essays because I didn’t read the subtitle carefully. It isn’t; it’s almost entirely old stuff, repackaged. But her old stuff is still beautiful and challenging and mind-expanding, and I was happy to re-read it. If I ever were to aspire to nonfiction in this way, Dillard is all that I could ever hope to be. Her boundless curiosity, her lyricism, her patience, her directness. It will always be difficult to convince me than any other American essayist can surpass her.

Up next on the reading docket: A big haul from the library book sale (somewhat thick, heady European novels that have been on my list for a long time + James Baldwin + John McPhee + Simone de Beauvoir’s short stories) and the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (I’m scared).

If you love home

DC in September
11 September: WWII Memorial with the Lincoln Memorial in the background.

If you love home—and even if you don’t—there is nothing quite as cozy, as comfortable, as delightful, as that first week back. That week, even the things that would irritate you—the alarm waahing from some car at three in the morning; the pigeons who come to clutter and cluck on the windowsill behind your bed when you’re trying to sleep in—seem instead reminders of your own permanence, of how life, your life, will always graciously allow you to step back inside of it, no matter how far you have gone away from it or how long you have left it. — A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

We spent a delightful weekend in DC with Kelsey and Alex, who are splendid hosts. We saw lots of old friends and spent time with new ones, and we didn’t want to leave their pristine urban paradise. But we have a Kelsey-and-Alex-filled fall, so that assuages us.

DC in September
Going out.

After leaving DC, I grew pensive and even a bit sad as I thought about my professional life. Alex just started a graduate program at Georgetown; Cristina is about to become a lawyer; Russ is starting a graduate program in California; Kelsey is seriously considering an MBA from New York University. And me? What am I doing? Reading lots of books and still schlepping around in the same job I’ve had for five years. I enjoy my work, and I am really grateful for my job, which provides me with a genuinely superb work/life balance. I am extremely happy on a day-to-day basis. But I would love nothing more than to go back to school. My graduate-degree ambitions are hindered by three major factors: (1) lack of sensible degree (I really just want a PhD in English, as deeply, heartbreakingly foolish as that is); (2) lack of money; and (3) lack of desire to move to another city. I feel stuck. I don’t have any answers, but I felt like confessing that to the void. I feel that I am getting old, and I don’t want my career to atrophy.

Smell the zinniasIn brighter news, I am finally reading John Cheever for the first time, and I am IN LOVE. The Chekhov of the American suburbs!

What’s new in your life?

The pleasures of work

desk
My desk, circa 2009.

Is there any glory in mendacity? In having to work 9 to 5 in a cubicle?

I have been thinking about this lately. We all have to work, if we want to live, and so we find something to do — something, hopefully, that isn’t soul crushing.

But sometimes work might be a little soul crushing, or it might feel that way for a day or a week or a month. I’d like to posit, and to remind myself, that no job is perfect. No job is going to make you feel 100% personally, emotionally, and psychologically fulfilled every second. I tend to think that “dream jobs” are just that: figments. Yes, there are jobs out there that might be the ideal fit for you, your skills, and your temperament, but even those jobs do not offer unlimited daily bliss. Even those jobs will have aspects (or colleagues or bosses or workplace cultures) that you dislike.

Perhaps this is the strong protestant in me, but I find comfort in this realization: that even the best jobs are not a constant utopia. Even the best jobs will make you feel sad or frustrated or imprisoned at times. To believe otherwise, that there is some heavenly, flawless career out there for us, is to live in a TED talk–inspired dreamworld.

I enjoy my job (copy editor), for instance, and I feel that it is very suited to my personality, interests, and abilities. I am so grateful to have this position, and I work with an upstanding, thoroughly likable team and have a great manager. But even with these huge advantages, I still can feel frustrated from time to time. And so I remember the little things.

Such as: My cubicle has transom windows, and I have a standing desk contraption that my boss bought for me. (I made my own standing desk out of piles of books and used it for weeks until she accosted me and said, “Abby. This is absurd. Do you have too many books or do you actually want a standing desk?”) My coworkers are engaging and thoughtful and (for the most part) we reason and act similarly. I work within walking distance to my home and to the center of town. I have a nice view of the mountains from my floor.

On evenings and weekends, I work as a calligrapher, and I am fortunate to have my own little studio.

Lovely light in the studio for tonight's #calligraphy work. #aroomofonesown
My studio at home.

My studio is a happy place. I’m my own boss. But even that has its disadvantages. There is a lot of self-doubt involved, and sometimes, a lack of ambition, because you’re not reporting to anyone. It is easy to convince yourself of just about anything when you are your own manager. Many nights, when I get home from my “real” job, calligraphy is the last thing I want to do. My fingers and eyes are tired. My letters aren’t coming out right.

But over all of this, over the dull and tedious tasks, over the irritating moments, I am grateful. I am thankful to have the work that I do, even when it isn’t perfect.

Wednesday thoughts

Flowers from Angela

Piecemeal thoughts on a Wednesday:

“Like” and “like” and “like”—but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing?

— Virginia Woolf, The Waves

It is easy for me to forget that God cares about little things. I’m a little thing, after all.

Even though I very much hope one of the candidates loses, if I am really being honest with myself, I don’t think much will change at all, regardless of the victor. Such is the nature of the American political machine. It has made me an unapologetic cynic with regard to all politicians everywhere. Machiavelli was the one to convince me not to become a political science major during my freshman year and I still think of him when I watch the debates or muddle through social media posts; it’s all a farce, all a dirty game.

I miss my family.

I need to read some lighthearted, dreamy fiction. Flannery O’Connor and Jesmyn Ward and Samuel Beckett all back-to-back = Violent, dark times. I need some fluttering, social web-spinning, 19th-century British ladywriters, STAT.

Lately, I have been so thankful for my job and for the work that I do. I am grateful for my coworkers, for the camaraderie that we have, for the rarity of our very happy workplace coexistence. I love being an editor. I’m so glad I found this profession.

New Life Goal: Read 100 books a year for the rest of my life.

That which you do not know

Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

I recently started Annie Proulx’s collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories (which includes the story “Brokeback Mountain,” famous because Ang Lee adapted into a film). I have loved Proulx since I read The Shipping News a few years ago and was excited to begin this collection. I’m only 60 pages in, but it’s been wonderful so far.

Here’s what it’s making me think about:

Annie Proulx comes from a different universe, as far as I’m concerned. She lives on a 640-acre ranch in Wyoming. These stories are about Wyoming people: Ranchers, weathered wives, wannabe bull-riders. I don’t know the first thing about life in Wyoming, but Close Range makes me feel like I do.

This collection stands in contrast to another set of short stories I read a few weeks ago, I Sailed with Magellan, by Stuart Dybek. I Sailed with Magellan is focused on the trials and tribulations of boys growing up on Chicago’s South Side. That’s another universe I don’t know anything about. I’ve never been an immigrant boy fighting my way through life in downtown Chicago. Neither have I been an aspiring bull-rider in Wyoming. But Proulx succeeds in something that Dybek does not: She manages to make her universe accessible to people who have never seen it, who have never known it. Dybek, while also a gifted writer, drops some kind of veil between his characters and their stories and his readers. I couldn’t get close enough to Dybek’s characters to really know them.

The distinction has been puzzling me ever since. What is it that Proulx does to make her universe accessible that Dybek does not? The best I can get at an answer is that Proulx’s characters seem to have more globalized, relatable flaws and desires. Dybek’s boys are very localized; they have Chicago problems with Chicago answers. Proulx’s people live in the vast, empty planet of the Wyoming plains, but their problems are our problems, too. In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” we recognize the self-sufficient old man who thinks he can make it on his own. We know Diamond Felts and his experience of the conflicting tug between freedom and protection in “The Mud Below.” We have seen them all before.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is not related to my thoughts, but this passage is from Annie Proulx’s 2009 Paris Review interview. I love her description of the joy and arduousness of writing, as if it were like manual labor:

There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.

Personality and profession

Click for source.

I was speaking with two senior editors yesterday about some book proofs we’d all been working on that had gone terribly awry, through no fault of our own. We were debating what to do, when, after proposing a course of action, my boss said, “But does that make me a control freak?”

“Of course it does!” The other said. “You have to be a control freak to be a decent editor.”

This made me start thinking: How much do our jobs have the potential to change our personalities? Our habits, our pet peeves? Or do we pick our jobs because they conform to our preexisting personalities?

For example, I think about my father, who is a computer engineer, and thus has a constant compulsion to innovate, to rewire, to upgrade. Or my uncle, who is the town fire chief and has a corresponding fixation with household safety. Or my mother, who is a teacher and has a deep focus on turning every moment into a “learning opportunity.”

Thinking in that vein, here are the habits and obsessions that being a copy editor has engendered in me:

  • A preternatural sense for finding punctuation errors in text. Sometimes I feel like I can sense them before I even read the paragraph.
  • Compulsive need for correctness in all things, especially factually and grammatically.
  • Googling like a BOSS.
  • Soul-level pain if I leave out a needed hyphen, apostrophe, comma, etc.
  • Need to tell everyone that “is” needs to be capitalized in titles.
  • Compulsion for mental and spatial organization.
  • Being obnoxious about little stuff.
  • Extreme timeliness, meeting deadlines way early.
  • A clean inbox. If I get more than eight unanswered e-mails in my inbox, I start to stress.
  • Excessive list-making. But you already knew that.

What about you? Has your job created any personality quirks in you? Or merely amplified the ones that you already had?

Manual laborer

I know I should be careful what I wish for, but today I really want a job that requires manual labor. OK, maybe not eight hours of manual labor, but at least SOMETHING more than the few minutes spent getting up from one’s desk to go to the bathroom and replenish one’s cup of tea. I was not prepared for how utterly lethargic a full-time desk job would make me feel. Some days I practice ballet moves that Catherine showed me when I move up and down the hallways, just so I won’t go crazy. I haven’t been caught yet.

These are the outdoorsy and/or active jobs I would not mind having in temperate seasons:

  • Orchid gardener
  • Dog trainer
  • Dog walker
  • Governess
  • Photojournalist
  • Old rich lady’s traveling companion to Europe and The Orient
  • Painter of large canvases
  • Stable-boy
  • Letterpress stationer (OK, not a ton of activity here, but more than I’m getting now)

What about you? Do you get to move around for your job? Do you hate it? Do you envy my slothful station?

Speaking of envy, last night at the Newlyweds’ Small Group we talked about the difference coveting, envying, and being jealous and we discovered that there are perceptible differences between each word. It was very exciting.

It’s been a quiet day over here and the snow is falling intermittently. Yes, snow. Even though yesterday we enjoyed 65-degree temperatures. It’s enough to drive a woman mad. Just when you’ve tasted spring, it gets jerked away from you again.

This weekend I finally decided that I’m going to volunteer at the local ASPCA. I am very excited about this, but I also feel guilty about it, for reasons that I may or may not decide to enumerate here.